Bringing back Shoaib is a gamble: Premachandran — Photo by AP
Bringing back Shoaib is a gamble: Premachandran — Photo by AP

NEW DELHI: What do they know of cricket diplomacy who only pay lip-service to it? Wednesday’s semifinal in Mohali is the most eagerly anticipated in the history of the game and will be followed by unprecedented numbers on either side of the Radcliffe Line and across the world. But already, politicians on both sides have piggybacked on to the cricket bandwagon, ensuring that the stadium experience for thousands of fans will be a hellish one.

Back in 1999, Pakistan toured India for the first time since Imran Khan’s side had clinched a series in 1987. After the two-Test series was drawn, they played a three-day game in Kochi as preparation for the Asian Test Championship, an unremarkable drawn match that few remember.

But while the team was based in Kerala, Shahryar Khan, the former foreign minister who was manager for the tour, took the team along to Raksha, a school in Fort Kochi for children with multiple disabilities. The kids loved it. Those that could fathom what was going on would never forget their brush with sporting celebrity.

That school was my great-uncle’s labour of love. He passed away four years ago, but each time she hears that I may be going to Pakistan or coming across the Pakistan team, my aunt contacts me to say: “If you do meet Mr Shahryar, please do convey our regards. Words can’t say how much it meant to us.”

If I do meet him in Mumbai at the final, I shall certainly do that, because what he did that day for those far less fortunate than most of us epitomised not just the essence of diplomacy, but a humanist outlook that is derided by hawks on both sides of the divide.

If Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani really want matters to improve – and let’s be honest, they can’t really get much worse – there needs to be more of that kind of people- to-people contact that leaves a lasting impression. Opportunities for folk on both sides to realise that the “other” doesn’t necessarily mean a Zaid Hamid or a Pravin Togadia.

I’d rather not hear any more glib lines about cricket for peace or the game being the winner. It’s the politicians’ duty to sort out the mess. The cricketers’ task is to turn up and give us a contest that we can savour.

Any way you look at it, this is a huge game. Half of Indian cricket’s most successful generation has already moved on. If the others don’t win the World Cup now, they never will. For Pakistan, after two dismal World Cup campaigns – one of which involved players being wrongly implicated in Bob Woolmer’s tragic death – and the trauma of the spot-fixing scandal, this is a wonderful chance to repay fans for their faith. Try telling Tendulkar or Afridi that “it’s only a game”.

The numbers suggest a Pakistan win. After all, they’ve beaten India 17 of 26 times on Indian soil. They’ve also won the two previous encounters at Mohali, chasing down 321 to win in November 2007. Cricketing logic though suggests an Indian success. By late March, most subcontinent pitches are tired, slow and lifeless. There won’t be much turn and the ball’s unlikely to come on to the bat. In such conditions, the stronger batting side usually wins. In this case, that’s India, with a top seven all capable of run-a-ball hundreds.

But when it comes to such intense rivalries, numbers and logic mean nothing. It’s invariably about which team can keep composure in tight situations. Often, it’s the experienced hands that experience the most tremors. In 1996, Waqar Younis’s final spell and Aamer Sohail’s focus on the verbals cost Pakistan dearly. In 2003, it was one over from Shoaib Akhtar that caused a huge momentum shift India’s way.

Pakistan have enjoyed plenty of success with spin in this competition but against India, it might be wiser to strengthen the pace options. Bringing back Shoaib is a gamble and if the team management is reluctant to, they could do worse than blood Junaid Khan. Mohammad Amir’s dismissal of Tendulkar at the Champions Trophy in 2009 illustrated the value of unleashing a young and hungry player in a big game.

Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir certainly won’t treat Afridi’s bowling with the deference that other teams have and if the Indians get away to a flyer, Pakistan cannot afford to unravel as they did in the final stages against New Zealand. If this Indian line- up has shown an Achilles Heel, it’s been in pushing on after fabulous starts.

There also needs to be greater urgency with the bat. Mohammad Hafeez and Kamran Akmal haven’t had the greatest of tournaments, but if they can get stuck into Zaheer Khan and R Ashwin early, maybe hitting one out of the attack, it drastically reduces the options at MS Dhoni’s disposal.

Hopefully, the atmosphere inside the stadium will be intense without a nasty edge. The better team will win, and the other should be left to reflect on a campaign that’s been far from a failure. Let’s not get caught in the usual pathetic spiral of accusing players of fixing and stoning their houses.

It’s not just another game, but it’s not Armageddon either. After losing a series in Chennai a decade ago, Steve Waugh got so sick of doom-and-gloom questions that he finally said: “No one died out there, mate.” It remains the best answer I’ve ever heard at a press conference, one that we’d do well to heed on Wednesday night.

The victors will be euphoric. There will be sadness on the other side. But let’s not confuse defeat and despair with tragedy. There are greater sorrows. No one bleeds blue or green. We all bleed red.



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